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In 1974 Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed The Conversation, which starred Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a socially maladroit surveillance expert. In this remarkably prescient movie, a mysterious organization hires Caul to record a quiet discussion that will take place in the middle of a crowd in San Francisco’s Union Square. Caul deploys three microphones: one in a bag carried by a confederate and two directional mikes installed on buildings overlooking the area. Afterward Caul discovers that each of the three recordings is plagued by background noise and distortions, but by combining the different sources, he is able to piece together the conversation. Or, rather, he thinks he has pieced it together. Later, to his horror, Caul learns that he misinterpreted a crucial line, a discovery that leads directly to the movie’s chilling denouement.

The Conversation illustrates a central dilemma for tomorrow’s surveillance society. Although much of the explosive growth in monitoring is being driven by consumer demand, that growth has not yet been accompanied by solutions to the classic difficulties computer systems have integrating disparate sources of information and arriving at valid conclusions. Data quality problems that cause little inconvenience on a local scale— when Wal-Mart’s smart shelves misread a razor’s radio frequency identification tag—have much larger consequences when organizations assemble big databases from many sources and attempt to draw conclusions about, say, someone’s capacity for criminal action. Such problems, in the long run, will play a large role in determining both the technical and social impact of surveillance.

The experimental and controversial Total Information Awareness program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency exemplifies these issues. By merging records from corporate,medical,retail, educational, travel, telephone, and even veterinary sources, as well as such “biometric”data as fingerprints,iris and retina scans, DNA tests, and facial-characteristic measurements,the program is intended to create an unprecedented repository of information about both U.S. citizens and foreigners with U.S. contacts. Program director John M. Poindexter has explained that analysts will use custom data-mining techniques to sift through the mass of information, attempting to “detect, classify, and identify foreign terrorists” in order to “preempt and defeat terrorist acts”—a virtual Eye of Sauron, in critics’ view, constructed from telephone bills and shopping preference cards.

In February Congress required the Pentagon to obtain its specific approval before implementing Total Information Awareness in the United States (though certain actions are allowed on foreign soil). But President George W. Bush had already announced that he was creating an apparently similar effort, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, to be led by the Central Intelligence Agency. Regardless of the fate of these two programs, other equally sweeping attempts to pool monitoring data are proceeding apace.Among these initiatives is Regulatory DataCorp, a for-profit consortium of 19 top financial institutions worldwide. The consortium, which was formed last July, combines members’ customer data in an effort to combat “money laundering, fraud, terrorist financing, organized crime, and corruption.” By constantly poring through more than 20,000 sources of public information about potential wrongdoings—from newspaper articles and Interpol warrants to disciplinary actions by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission—the consortium’s Global Regulatory Information Database will, according to its owner, help clients “know their customers.”

Equally important in the long run are the databases that will be created by the nearly spontaneous aggregation of scores or hundreds of smaller databases. “What seem to be small-scale, discrete systems end up being combined into large databases,” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center,a nonprofit research organization in Washington, DC. He points to the recent, voluntary efforts of merchants in Washington’s affluent Georgetown district. They are integrating their in-store closed-circuit television networks and making the combined results available to city police. In Rotenberg’s view, the collection and consolidation of individual surveillance networks into big government and industry programs “is a strange mix of public and private, and it’s not something that the legal system has encountered much before.”

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